Photographed by Winnie Au.
The question of what to do first at the gym — weights or cardio — has differing answers depending on whom you ask. Typically, the thought is to do what’s most important to you first, so you can give it your all while your energy levels are high. That means if your goal is to build muscle, head to the weight room after your dynamic warm-up, so you won’t be lunging and squatting after you’re fatigued from a cardio session.
A new study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise with researchers from Western State Colorado University finds that from a physiological standpoint, cardio first is best. The small study looked at 24 men and women between the ages of 18 and 39. The participants were asked to perform a series of different training sessions that combined four pillars of fitness (cardiorespiratory, resistance, neuromotor, and flexibility training) in various orders. The neuromotor routine includes exercises that test agility and balance.
The researchers found that the optimal sequence included performing the cardiorespiratory routine first, followed by resistance training, and finally flexibility and neuromotor, in either order. The reason being is that the participant’s heart rate increased by an average of 12 beats per minute if asked to perform the cardio training last. Since the goal of this routine was to remain in the moderate-intensity zone, the difference often pushed the participants into a vigorous-intensity range. When exercise is too intense, you risk injury and giving up all together, notes the researchers. And, the benefit to slating resistance training second is that you receive all of the benefits without feeling like it was too hard to complete, says lead researcher Dr. Lance Dalleck, Ph.D.
Of course, to complicate matters, the researchers note that the ideal sequencing is different for each individual, going back to the notion that you want to focus first on the type of training that is most relevant to your specific goal. And, if time allows, not every type of routine needs to be included in the same workout — you can spread the different elements throughout the week.
What it boils down to is that on days you want to do everything at the gym, you might benefit from performing your cardio routine first. But, instead of worrying about a precise schedule, just showing up at the gym and doing something will deliver results.